The other day, I noticed a game called “Endless Space” on Steam. I’ve been interested in 4x space games since the days of Masters of Orion 2, and I haven’t really been that happy with anything that’s come out since then. (Yes, I bought MOO3, Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations, among others.) I had been preparing to create a 4x space game around the time I was finishing Empires of Steel, but the project was dismissed after failing to earn enough profit from EOS to fund my next project. Looking around the internet and finding some positive reviews of the game, I bought a copy – regular price of $30, but 25% off right now on Steam.
Endless Space is still in Alpha, so take any reviews with a grain of salt. Why exactly they’re selling an Alpha version is unclear. They have a project where people can get vote to guide the development of the game, but it seems a little late to be guiding the development of a game in Alpha. My suspicion was that they are running low on money, and they decided to start selling the Alpha version to fund the project.
One of the first reviews I read talked about how beautiful the user interface was. I have to admit that they had some nice face-in/out effects, the star map and the star-system view looks beautiful, but the GUI was a little blocky.
The technology tree was decent. They have technology split into four major categories – combat, applied science, exploration and expansion (terraforming, transportation, ship hulls), diplomacy and trade. The technology tree is displayed like spokes on a wheel. Early in the game, you’re near the center of the tree, which works great. But, as you progress in the game, the technologies you’re researching are farther and father from the center. This results in a lot of extra scrolling, and it’s easier to overlook technologies you haevn’t researched. What seems like a great design early in the game became more tedious as the game progressed.
At times, it felt like some of the obvious technologies are missing. For example, you don’t need to build a spacecraft hangar to build large spacecraft. It seems like some sort of academy might also be useful in adding to spacecraft attributes (via training spacecraft crews). It would’ve been nice to get more contextual help on the technology view – for example, when looking at arctic terraforming, it would be useful to know whether you have arctic planets in any of your solar systems.
Each of your colonies produce four things: food, production, science, and “dust” (i.e. money, but it seems to resemble “Spice” from Dune).
The game includes strategic resources and luxury resources. The strategic resources are required for various build items – for example, you need to have access to Titanium-70 to build the cruiser hull-type. The luxury resources include things like “Eden Incense” and “Ionic Crystals”. The resources give your empire or star system various bonuses and advantages – even moreso if you have a monopoly on a resource. I liked the idea of including resources in the game. It added the feeling of a world like “Dune” where empires battle over an important resource like Spice. Of course, there’s a dozen luxury resources and eight strategic resources in the game, which dilutes the importance of any one resource and creates a different situation than everyone fighting over one major resource.
I realize that, as a game-designer, you want to make certain resources valuable by adding concrete advantages to these resources, but I couldn’t help but think about them from the standpoint of realism and think that some of the resources had counterintuitive effects (e.g. the Ionic Crystals soothe the mind and increased the speed of your spacecraft by 10% or more). My background in biology made me think that there should be different luxury resources for each alien species – since a mold or a plant is unlikely to have the same biological or neurological effects on multiple alien species. Like I said, these aren’t problems with the game unless you trying to think about it in terms of realism.
Star System Management
For build orders, you manage each star system as a unit, rather than managing your planets individually. For example, you might’ve colonized three different planets in a star system. The game combines their production attributes together, so if you want to build a spacecraft, you’re assigning the star-system orders to build the spacecraft, rather than assigning one particular planet orders to build the spacecraft. The game lets you colonize upto six planets in one solar system, so this cuts down the number of build-queues that you need to manage. It would get annoying to manage production for each planet individually.
There were a few annoyances with the user-interface, mostly to do with user-friendliness:
* Sometimes there were too many options put into the “build options” window. The game could’ve better organized build options into categories (e.g. “food production”, “star-system defense”, etc). They use a color-coding system in the upper right to help indicate this, but it’s easy to overlook, and you have to figure out the color-coding on your own. It would be better if they were actually organized into categories.
* I would’ve liked to have a way to ignore certain build options. For example, when you’re running a space empire, this situation comes up constantly: your planet has finished building something and now you want to find something else to build. I wish I could find a way to hide options that won’t help this particular solar system. For example, if an improvement is only useful on a lava planet, and there are no lava planets in my solar system, I’d like to hide that option. Otherwise, everytime I look for a new build option, I see it, evaluate it, realize that I don’t have a lava planet, and then ignore it. I found myself staring at the same build options over and over, realizing that it’s not useful for this solar system, and picking something else to build, only to repeat the whole thing again a few turns later. It became annoying.
* I’d also want a quick way to evaluate the usefulness of each option for that particular solar system. For example, one improvement might give a +1 food on arctic planets, a +2 food arid planets, and +1 food on tundra planets. I then have to scan all the planets I’ve colonized in that solar system and figure out how useful that particular build option would be. The interface should be intelligent enough to highlight what advantages apply to this particular solar system. An even more intelligent system would include customized reports on which technologies are most useful in a solar system. This would take some of the busy work out of the game, and it would be useful and plausible for a leader of a space empire to have customized reports on these kinds of things.
The game allows you to add one “Planet Improvement” to each planet in your system. This has the effect of improving a planet’s food, industry, science, or money – effectively causing the planet to get extra bonuses in one function. In games like MOO2, I like to make each planet specialize in one major area (like science or production) because that’s the most efficent use of planetary upgrades, so this fits with my existing strategy. New technologies add new planet improvements or terraforming options, which is interesting. One problem is that some terraforming options are only shown on the planet interface, and since you’ll be spending most of your time on the solar-system interface, it’s easy to overlook those options after you’ve research them.
The game has heros that you can hire to command fleets and manage star-systems. There was nothing too interesting about them. They level up over time – giving them extra bonuses, but they’ll cost you more money. I think it’s a little odd that all the heros are capable of commanding fleets and managing planets (from the standpoint of realism, I’d expect a hero to be good at either fleet command or planet management, not both). Also, if your hero is commanding a fleet and the fleet is destroyed, they are returned to your empire as “injured”. I’d expect them to be dead, but maybe the game developers thought that was a little too harsh. The heros can also consume a fair amount of money. For example, in my current game, I have a reasonably large fleet — I’m at war with an alien race and making some progress capturing their star systems. My entire fleet costs 38 Dust (i.e. Money) per turn. I have two heros in my empire, and their combined cost is 30 Dust per turn. While they appear to be worth the money I’m spending, from the standpoint of realism, it seems strange to pay two people almost the same amount of money as the upkeep cost of my entire military. In real-world numbers, it would be like paying someone trillions of dollars per year. Perhaps it’s wrong to occasionally think about the game in terms of realism, and just accept it for what it is. The game only allows you to have three heros at one time, unless you research far enough down the technology tree to get extra heros.
The Stars are connected by movement lines. I don’t really mind if a game uses movement lanes or freeform movement between stars. The idea of movement lanes does open up some strategic options, for example, sometimes a star system will become valuable simply because it’s part of a choke-point for movement. This makes things a little more interesting, and the fact that enemies can’t warp into any of your star systems removes the pressure to heavily defend every single star system you own. As someone who plays using a more defensive strategy, it’s nice not to have worry about enemies warping into all of your star systems. Later in the game, you can research a technology that let’s you ignore movement lanes and move anywhere, though it’s slower than moving along movement paths.
The combat system splits combat into three phases: long range, medium range, and short range. Missiles are most useful at long range, beam weapons are most useful at medium-range, and kinetic weapons (i.e. high-tech cannons) are most useful at short range. Ships have defenses for each type of offensive weapon – anti-missile defenses for missles, shields for beam weapons, and armor for kinetic weapons. Because each type of weapon has it’s own subcategory in the technology tree, it’s common for empires to excel in one type of offensive weapon and one type of defensive weapon. During my game, I figured out that the Cravers tended to use beam weapons and armor. To counter this, I customized by technology research and ship-designs to build missiles (since he didn’t have anti-missile defense) and shields (to counter his beam weapons). I like the idea of being able to study your enemy and customize your ships in response to his technology. The AI didn’t seem to customize his ships against mine or adjust his ship design in response to my customized ship-designs. That was a nice advantage over the AI, but it also made the game easier. The game is only in Alpha, though, so maybe this is an issue that will be addressed before the official release.
The combat can be handled automatically (which would be helpful in multiplayer games), or you can go an manage the combat using some options. The game gives you the option of using some tactics which modify the combat numbers in each phase. In general, it felt like you were playing a card (e.g. “I’m playing the defense card, which gives me +25% to my defense values.” “Well, I’m playing the sabotage card.”). You can choose a strategy card for each of the three phases of combat. There was a little bit of a “rock, paper, scissors” feel to it since some tactics could neutralize other ones, so you might try to guess what the other person would do. You can get new tactics through the technology tree. For some odd reason, a few tactics will cost you some dust. The idea of combat tactics isn’t bad, but it didn’t add that much to the game. I could imagine some more interesting takes on the tactics idea – for example, you could choose to minimize your damage and make an escape because you know the enemy is more powerful than you, or maybe you want to protect one particular ship in your fleet so you send other ships forward to engage the enemy while your valuable ship escapes (for example, maybe your valuable ship is a colony ship or flagship). I will say that Endless Space does maintain a fairly simple, minimial system – which is good in some ways.
If you choose to watch the space battles, it’s rendered in 3d. It’s nice and cinematic, but since your ships all look the same, it can get a little boring. When I say “all the ships look the same”, what I mean is that each race has their own variety of spacecraft, and each ship class has it’s own model. So, if you’re playing the human player, all ships with the “destroyer hull” look the same, and all ships with the “cruiser hull” look the same. At the same time, all spacecraft and all hulls have a similar shape, and they’re all kind of boring. It would be much cooler if there were some dramatically different hull designs, or a variety of hull designs to choose from. I wouldn’ve liked to see 3d battles more similar to say, Homeworld or even some hull designs as varied as those in MOO2. Then again, watching combat isn’t that important and one could argue that minimizing the time spent on combat and hull-selection is more time you can spend winning the game. (The image on the right is what the human “destroyer” ships look like.)
Ship design exists, but it’s fairly minimal. You select a hull (e.g. destroyer, cruiser, etc). You select what weapons and defenses you want on the ship. You don’t have a 2d display of the ship where you can place individual items, rather, you simply design a ship with “5 positron torpedos” and “4 plasma fields”. Games like Galactic Civ allow you to place individual items in specific places, but I don’t think that kind of ship-design is necessary. The Endless Space system makes ship-design faster. While placing items on a ship might be fun, it doesn’t really add to anything. I generally found it to be a more minimal system than MOO2, which results in fewer options (which is bad if you want to create specially designed ships, but good in terms of minimizing the amount of time people are spending in the ship-design window).
Invading solar systems was relatively minimalistic. You’d send your combat ships to a solar system, select “Invade the enemy star system” and, over the course of a number of turns, your control over the system gradually increases. The bar-graph above the system would display your control. Some ship-design improvements would help you take control of the solar-system more quickly, and various planet improvements would reduce how quickly an enemy could takeover your system. If you only have one ship in orbit around the system, it could take ten or twenty turns to takeover the system. Generally, it’ll take five turns or so. This gives the enemy a chance to fly in and counterattack before you’ve actually conquered the system. Once you take complete control of the system, the alien race will be in open-revolt against you (so you can’t really build anything), but they would slowly change over time. The end result is that planets that you captured could not simply be turned around to build things against your enemies. Overall, it was a very minimalistic way of handling planetary conquest, but I liked that aliens didn’t just turn around and start working hard for the civilization that just invaded their planet.
Capturing a star systems takes time and there’s no way to simply damage or destroy a star system, so you can’t do hit-and-run attacks against enemy star-systems. When you’re playing a defensive game, this is nice because the enemy player can’t just warp into your star system and mess up your planet (by dropping some nukes or something) and then escape. You’ve got the luxury of leaving major star systems undefended; you just need to be able to get your fleet there to counterattack within five turns or so – before the star system comes under his control. If he does capture the starsystem, the only real damage he can do is to destroy the improvements. During my game, I never actually saw the AI destroy the improvements, but it could be a significant setback. On the flipside, if you’re going to invade an enemy’s territory, you know that you won’t be able to harm his manufacturing base or make any territory gains without dealing with his fleet. This makes it hard to score an upset victory against an enemy. As far as I could tell, changing the game balance will depend more on your production and technology compared to the other player, rather than any clever attack strategy you can think up.
Since the game is in Alpha and the developers admit that there’s still a lot of game-balancing to be done before release, take this with a grain of salt. I found that the AI was good at certain things – like expanding over the map and colonizing star-systems, but weak at other things. As I mentioned earlier, the AI was not good at adjusting it’s ship designs to counter my ship designs. The AI didn’t seem particularly good at defending its star systems or mounting attacks on my star systems. There were times where he would repeatedly try to send a small scout ship through my well-defended star system, only to have his ship destroyed. Other times, he would send a few destroyers against one of my well-defended star systems. There were a few occasions where he mounted a reasonable-sized attack against me, but it was not that common. Overall, it seemed like the AI was just inconsistent with his attack strategy – playing well sometimes and playing poorly at other times. It seemed to me that the longer the game was running, the worse the AI would do. I noticed that when I restarted the application and loaded my game, that the AI tended to do well for then next twenty turns or so. If the game was running for 50 turns or more, the AI would sometimes become extremely docile. I think there was a bug in the AI that became more important the longer the application was up.
Like I said: take it with a grain of salt, since the AI will likely be improved before the official release.
There appeared to be no spying system in the game. I guess that’s okay. Spying is often handled badly in 4x games.
I really like the idea of empires having a very different vibe. The three principle races of Starcraft have a different vibe from each other. I really liked the ambience of the Warhammer SpaceMarine game, where you were constantly reminded about the state of the world and your role in it — i.e. you were a badass SpaceMarine who was essentially a walking tank, your mission was to serve the Emperor, and humans were locked in an endless war with other races. There was definitely a roman-legion type of vibe combined with a Medieval and World War I influence. Even the names of places (like “Titan Manufactorum”) reinforced the vibe of the world and helped create the illusion of a much larger and very foreign world – as I would expect of any alien race. My point is that human civilizations throughout history have had different rules, and government structures, and cultures, and I’d expect an even larger variation in alien civilizations.
Your empire in Endless Space doesn’t really have a “vibe”. It’s true that different races have different advantages and disadvantages, but there was nothing there to imply what the culture of your civilization was. I guess that’s okay, but it would’ve been more interesting to have very different vibes to different civilizations. As for the backstories and types of races, I do have to give them credit for some interesting ideas. The “Horatio” race is a bunch of clones created by some very narcisistic person. The “Cravers” have no diplomatic options – they’re simply a militaristic race who try to consume the universe. I have to give them credit for the interesting ideas and gameplay behind that, even if the culture of each empire was left mostly as a blank slate.
Update: The full version of the game was released, and they included a short intro to your race, fleshing out each civilization a little better. Example:
User Friendliness / Intuitiveness
Most of the interface was fairly intuitive, although there were a few things that I couldn’t figure out until I was midway through my second game. I ended up losing my second game due to an “Economic Victory” by the Cravers. They had amassed 300,000 Dust (i.e. Money) in their treasury. I had no idea what the possible victory conditions were – I had assumed only a military victory would win the game. I had been making steady progress conquering his empire and I owned just over half the map when, without warning, the game abruptly ended by telling me I had been defeated. It would’ve been nice to have a warning somewhat earlier in the game to indicate that an economic victory was possible or that one of the other players was well on his way to acheiving it. For example, if they mentioned that another player was halfway to achieving an economic victory.
At times, it sort of seemed like a slightly stripped down version of Masters Of Orion 2 with a few additions here and there, like 3d graphics, a more hands-off combat system, and (strategic, luxury) resources. There were also times when it sort of felt a little bit like a board game – with stuff like picking a combat tactic or being limited to three heros. It wasn’t a bad game, and I spent plenty of time playing it late into the night, and I spent a total of 16 hours playing. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to start a third game though.